Harsh Judgment

Composer Scot Hanna-Weir transforms a dark moment in U.S. history into a restoration of humanity.

Jarring words, beautiful music. Composer Scot Hanna-Weir, who directs choral activities at SCU, has transformed a shameful Supreme Court decision into thought-provoking art: Buck v. Bell, the 1927 decision that legalized forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded” living in institutions. Hanna-Weir composed and scored the piece, which was presented both in concert with the SCU Chamber Singers and with a talkback session with faculty from the law school and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics last spring. The rationale championed by court justices, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (backed by all but one member): Plaintiff Carrie Buck and those like her were more apt to commit crimes and threaten community safety. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes declared. The case was considered a victory for eugenics—a once-popular belief that breeding for favored human qualities could improve a population. The rise of Nazism showed where that thinking could lead. Hanna-Weir also wanted to restore humanity to Carrie Buck by repeating her name fugue-style throughout the composition. “People don’t know about this, and they should,” he says.

post-image Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s court opinion—“Three generations of imbeciles are enough”—became lyrics in the composition Buck v. Bell. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
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